Frankie Goes To Stony Brook
By Nancy Tamosaitis
Frank Zappa is a force to be reckoned with, but due to his firm belief in being as unorthodox as possible, he is, by and large, ignored by the masses. However, the masses present at the Stony Brook gym for the 11 PM show Saturday night obviously were not of the ordinary breed.
Zappa, clad in muscle shirt, jeans and sporting a pony-tail, walked onto stage amidst thunderous applause and a standing ovation. He uttered, "Sit down and make yourself comfortable." Like humbled worshippers following a blessed leader, everyone sat down. What power he wields over his devoted flock!
Zappa and his extraordinarily tight six piece unit opened with the instrumental "Zoot Allures." As Zappa tradition dictates, before beginning his guitar solo he lit a cigarette and affixed it to the fingerboard. As the cigarette burned down to the butt, like the sands slowly sifting through an hourglass, Zappa engaged in a guitar solo – only limited by the lifespan of the cigarette. He possesses a truly fluid and natural left hand. This listener, however found his trademark use of distortion and wah-wah a bit overbearing. All this extraneous fuzz tends to divert one's attention from the music at hand.
Zappa took to the mike with his next number, "Tinseltown Rebellion." He sang against the evils of commercialism and the vacuousness of "plastic rock groups" like Boy George, whom he sarcastically mimicked with a short chorus from "I'll Tumble For You." Unfortunately, much of his acerbic social commentary was lost to this listener in a sea of overly amplified music. A more thorough sound check definitely was in order.
Zappa is known for employing the finest musicians for his gigs, and this concert certainly was no exception. Each and every member is an outstanding performer deserving of star billing in his own right.
Guitarists Ike Willis and Ray White doubled as lead and back up vocalists. These two men were a dynamite team tossing off intricate guitar licks and vocal harmonies with apparent ease. Bobby Martin is an incredibly multi-faceted performer, alternating between keyboards, sax, french horn and vocals. Chad Wackerman on drums and Scott Thomas on bass managed to plough through some of the trickiest rhythms this side of Varese and still come out on one. Alan Zavod's keyboard work was so hot that he had to be fanned off by Martin after a frenzied and frenetic dialogue with the drummer.
In choosing material for this show Zappa dug way back. Most of the songs dated back to the 60's and early 70's, with quite a bit of material from his Mother's of Invention periods. However, it seemed most of the audience was ready to freak out after not hearing "Valley Girl," "Dancin' Fool" or "Jewish Princess," though he did treat us to a tasty serving of "Cosmik Debris" and the ever popular "I Am the Slime."
The concluding number, after two encores, was a superbly rendered cover of the Allman Brother's classic, "Whipping Post." Bobby Martin sang out in the richest, most sonorous voice imaginable as he closed the show with a booming, "Oh Lord, I feel like I'm dying."
The beauty of that unencumbered closing refrain led me to thinking about the virtue of simplicity. Martin did not need to sing in a meter of 27 over 3 to capture our attention. The pure unadulterated magic of a glorious voice riveted us to our seats. At times, Zappa's use of extraordinarily intricate rhythms overshadow any melodic aspects of his compositions. Shifting meters frequently does not a good song make.
Polyrhythms may be an advanced compositional device but they don't make a satisfying song by themselves. Somewhere there must be a middle ground more evolved than the usual three chords, pound-that-drum muck that dominates our air waves. Zappa, in all his syncopated lunacy, can never be described as typical.
Few, if any, other rockers exist who have been able to remain afloat after steadfastly refusing to join the musical mainstream. For that alone, Francis gets five stars.
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